Adolescents Who Engage In High-Risk Sexual Behaviors May Have Emotional Issues

Table of Contents

This Article Seeks to Answer the Following Issues: 

  • Definition, Forms, and Causes of High-Risk Sexual Behavior among Teenagers
  • Impact of High-Risk Sexual Behaviors on Teenagers
  • How to Treat High-Risk Teenage Sexual Behaviors
  • Working with Teenagers to Address High-Risk Sexual Behavior
  • Benefits of Treating High-Risk Sexual Behavior
  • Prevention of High-Risk Teenage Sexual Behaviors

Teens undergo many physical and emotional changes during adolescence which may result in heightened excitement, curiosity, and a desire to experiment. For example, they can start exploring their sexuality, which is normal and necessary. For some adolescents, this exploration may manifest in high-risk sexual behaviors, such as unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, or engaging in sexual activities at an early age.

However, it is essential to recognize that adolescents who exhibit such behaviors often have underlying emotional issues that contribute to their choices. Emotional issues, such as low self-esteem in teens, trauma, depression, anxiety, or a history of adverse experiences, can influence their decision-making and risk-taking behaviors.

Understanding the connection between high-risk sexual behaviors and emotional issues is crucial for providing comprehensive care and support to these adolescents. By addressing both their emotional well-being and sexual behaviors, you can help them navigate this challenging stage of life and promote healthier choices for their long-term well-being.

What is High-Risk Sexual Behavior

A high-risk sexual behavior is any sexual act predisposing someone to an increased risk of unintended pregnancy or the contraction and spread of a sexually transmitted infection, such as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

Common Forms of High-Risk Sexual Behavior in Teenagers

The four most common teenage high-risk sexual behaviors are:

  • Unprotected Sex: Unprotected sex, defined as sex without contraception or barriers such as condoms, contraceptive sponges, dental dams, or a diaphragm, is by far the most common high-risk sexual behavior among teenagers. It can lead to unintended pregnancy and contraction or spread of STIs such as gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, and Chlamydia.
  • Early Sexual Activity: Early sexual activity can be defined as sex among teenagers below sixteen years. It is associated with negative health outcomes after transitioning to adulthood. It can also lead to unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, more than one sexual partner, and less frequent condom use.
  • Multiple Sexual Partners: Having more than one sexual partner increases the risks of contracting and spreading sexually transmitted infections. It also predisposes teenagers to human papillomavirus, popularly known as HPV, which is linked to cancers such as mouth, anal, cervical, penile, and prostate. Additionally, having several sexual partners may have psychological impacts, leading to substance abuse and subsequent consequences such as depression.
  • Sexual Coercion: Due to a heightened sense of curiosity and exploration, teenagers may be easily pressured or influenced to have sex. A good example of sexual coercion is getting tricked into having sex by being lied to or promised non-existent things. It can lead to depression, humiliation, and reputational damage.

Factors that Contribute to High-Risk Sexual Behavior

High-risk sexual behavior in adolescents can be influenced by a variety of factors, including emotional, social, and environmental elements. Understanding these contributing factors is essential for developing effective interventions and prevention strategies. Here are some key factors that contribute to high-risk sexual behavior:

Emotional Factors

Emotional factors significantly impact the likelihood of adolescents engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors. Emotional issues, such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma, can create a vulnerable foundation contributing to risky sexual activities. Let’s explore these emotional factors in more detail:

Low Self-Esteem

Adolescents with low self-esteem may struggle with feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, or a lack of confidence. Engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors can serve as a way to seek validation, acceptance, or a temporary boost in self-worth. They may mistakenly believe that engaging in risky sexual activities will make them more desirable or accepted by others.


Adolescents experiencing depression may struggle with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and emptiness. Engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors can be a means of escaping or temporarily alleviating the emotional pain associated with depression. It may provide a brief sense of pleasure, excitement, or distraction from negative thoughts and feelings.


Anxiety disorders can create intense fear, worry, and unease in adolescents. Some individuals may engage in high-risk sexual behaviors to temporarily alleviate their anxiety. It might provide a sense of control, distraction, or relief from anxious thoughts and feelings. Additionally, anxiety can contribute to impulsivity, leading to teens engaging in risky behaviors without considering the potential consequences.

History of Trauma

History of teen trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, may develop emotional issues that impact their sexual behaviors. Traumatic experiences can disrupt their sense of safety, trust, and self-worth. Engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors may be a manifestation of unresolved trauma, an attempt to regain control, or a way to reenact or normalize previous traumatic experiences.

Lack of Comprehensive Sex Education

Insufficient knowledge about safe sex practices, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can contribute to engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

Peer Influence

Adolescents may be influenced by their peers to engage in high-risk sexual behaviors, especially in environments where risky behaviors are normalized or perceived as socially desirable.

Substance Abuse

Substance use, such as alcohol or drug consumption, can impair judgment and increase the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

Sensation-Seeking Behavior

Some adolescents may have a natural inclination towards seeking excitement and thrill, which can lead to engaging in risky sexual behaviors as a form of exploration.


Adolescents may exhibit impulsive tendencies, which can lead to engaging in sexual activities without considering the potential consequences or practicing safe sex.

Media Influence

Exposure to media, including television, movies, and online platforms, that portray risky sexual behaviors without addressing the associated risks or consequences can shape adolescents’ attitudes and behaviors.

Relationship Factors

Unhealthy relationship dynamics, such as power imbalances, coercion, or lack of communication, can contribute to engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors.

By addressing these factors and providing support, sex education, and resources, we can empower adolescents to make informed and responsible choices regarding their sexual health and well-being.

Impact of Emotional Issues on High-Risk Sexual Behaviors in Adolescents

Emotional issues play a significant role in influencing high-risk sexual behaviors among adolescents. These issues can encompass a range of psychological, social, and environmental factors that contribute to engaging in risky sexual activities. Understanding the impact of emotional issues is crucial for addressing the underlying causes and developing effective interventions. Here are some key ways in which emotional issues can influence high-risk sexual behaviors in adolescents:

Impaired Decision-Making

Emotional distress, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma, can impair adolescents’ decision-making abilities. They may engage in risky sexual behaviors due to poor judgment, emotional impulsivity, or a desire to seek temporary relief from emotional pain.

Coping Mechanism

For some adolescents, engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors may serve as a maladaptive coping mechanism for dealing with emotional issues. It can temporarily escape or distract from emotional distress, even though the long-term consequences may be detrimental.

Self-Esteem and Identity

Emotional issues, such as low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy, can influence adolescents to seek validation or acceptance through high-risk sexual behaviors. They may believe engaging in such behaviors will enhance their self-worth or solidify their identity.

Emotional Regulation Challenges

Adolescents who struggle with regulating their emotions may turn to high-risk sexual behaviors as a way to seek pleasure, excitement, or a sense of control over their emotional state. Engaging in risky sexual activities may temporarily alleviate emotional pain or provide a sense of validation.

Past Trauma and Abuse

Adolescents who have experienced past trauma or abuse may engage in high-risk sexual behaviors due to unresolved emotional issues. They may struggle with establishing healthy boundaries, maintaining self-care, or developing healthy relationships, leading to increased vulnerability to risky sexual situations.

Seeking Intimacy and Connection

Emotional issues can create a desire for intimacy and connection in adolescents. They may engage in high-risk sexual behaviors for emotional closeness, validation, or a sense of belonging, even if it puts them at risk.

Influence on Relationship Dynamics

Emotional issues can impact the quality of relationships, leading to unhealthy dynamics that contribute to high-risk sexual behaviors. Lack of effective communication, emotional instability, or poor self-regulation can increase the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual activities within relationships.

Addressing the emotional issues underlying high-risk sexual behaviors is crucial for promoting healthier choices and overall well-being in adolescents. By providing comprehensive support, therapy, education, and resources that address emotional well-being, we can empower adolescents to navigate their emotions healthier and make informed decisions regarding their sexual health.

Working With Teenagers to Address High-Risk Sexual Behavior

Adolescents who engage in high-risk sexual behaviors and have underlying emotional issues face unique challenges, but there are protective and resiliency factors that can help mitigate the negative impact and promote healthier outcomes. These factors are crucial in supporting adolescents in navigating their emotions and making informed decisions regarding their sexual behaviors. Let’s explore some of these factors:

Parents’ Supportive Relationships

Positive relationships with caring and supportive parents, guardians, mentors, or trusted adults, can be a protective factor for teens. These relationships provide emotional support, guidance, and a sense of belonging, which can help adolescents develop healthy coping mechanisms and make more positive choices regarding their sexual behaviors.

Improve Teens Emotional Intelligence

Developing emotional intelligence, which includes recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions effectively, can empower adolescents to navigate their emotional issues more constructively. Emotional intelligence fosters self-awareness, empathy, and healthy relationship skills, reducing the likelihood of engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors as a response to emotional distress.

Building Resilience and Coping Skills

Building resilience and developing healthy coping skills equip adolescents with the ability to bounce back from challenges and manage their emotions effectively. Resilience enables them to adapt to difficult circumstances, regulate their emotional responses, and seek support when needed, reducing the likelihood of resorting to high-risk sexual behaviors as a means of coping.

Encourage Positive Peer Influence

Engaging with peers who promote healthy behaviors and values can have a significant impact on adolescents. Positive peer influence can provide support, encouragement, and a sense of belonging that steers adolescents away from engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors and encourages them to prioritize emotional well-being.

Educational Opportunities

Access to comprehensive sex education and accurate information about sexual health can empower adolescents to make informed decisions regarding their sexual behaviors. Education that emphasizes consent, healthy relationships, and responsible sexual practices provides adolescents with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate their emotions and make safer choices.

Nurturing Personal Strengths and Interests

Recognizing and nurturing individual strengths and interests can boost adolescents’ self-esteem, confidence, and sense of purpose. Developing talents, pursuing hobbies, or engaging in activities that promote personal growth and fulfillment can serve as protective factors, empowering adolescents to make positive choices and find healthier outlets for emotional expression.

By fostering these protective and resiliency factors, parents can help adolescents who engage in high-risk sexual behaviors and have emotional issues develop the necessary tools and support systems to navigate their emotions, build resilience, and make healthier decisions regarding their sexual behaviors. These factors contribute to their overall well-being and promote positive emotional development.

Dual Diagnosis Programs for Treating High-Risk High Sexual Behavior

Dual diagnosis programs play a crucial role in addressing high-risk sexual behavior in teens who have co-occurring teen mental health and teen substance use disorders. These specialized programs provide comprehensive and integrated treatment to address both the underlying emotional issues and the risky sexual behaviors. By recognizing the interplay between mental health and high-risk sexual behavior, dual diagnosis programs offer a holistic approach to support individuals in their recovery journey. Here’s an overview of dual diagnosis programs and their significance in treating high-risk sexual behavior:

At Key Healthcare, we use dual diagnosis to treat teens engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors:

Intensive Outpatient Therapy

Intensive outpatient Therapy, popularly known as Teen IOP, uses outpatient treatment programs to help teenagers develop healthy coping skills and build self-awareness. They also learn to manage emotions, solve problems and build healthy relationships. Techniques used include individual teen therapy, family therapy, and teen group therapy.

Teen Extended Care

Teen Extended care offers teens the necessary recovery support. It is a full-time program in a structured and stable home environment that helps prevent relapse. Goals include passion development, better problem-solving, increased independence, and relationship-building.

Teen Partial Hospitalization

Despite being more rigorous than intensive outpatient therapy, a teen partial hospitalization program is less intensive than full inpatient or teen residential treatment, as teenagers live at home while attending the Teen PHP program up to 5x per week. They learn how to tackle family issues, love their families once again, better control their thoughts and triggers, think long-term, make excellent decisions, and focus on what’s important, such as education.

Residential Treatment Center

Our teen residential treatment center works for adolescents with serious mental health and substance use issues. At Key Healthcare, we use individual therapy, holistic and recreation therapies, group therapy for teens, family-centered treatment, and academic support.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Common medications for high-risk sexual behavior include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-androgens, and naltrexone.

Tips for Parents Dealing With Teenage High-Risk Sexual Behavior

Consider doing the following if you have a teen engaging in high-risk sexual behavior:

  • Encourage them to embrace healthy and respectful relationships.
  • Offer factual information on pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection prevention strategies, such as contraceptives and regular testing.
  • Let them know your sex and relationships expectations
  • Tell them about the benefits of HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy prevention
  • Ensure they know where to receive sexual health services such as HIV or STD testing.


By addressing the emotional issues underlying high-risk sexual behaviors, we can help adolescents develop healthier coping mechanisms, improve their self-esteem, and make more informed decisions regarding their sexual behaviors. This involves providing comprehensive teenage mental health support, therapy, and education on sexual health and healthy relationships.

Through integrated treatment approaches, such as dual diagnosis programs, which address co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, Key Healthcare can provide teens with the tools and resources to manage their emotional challenges and reduce high-risk sexual behaviors. This includes therapy, counseling, substance abuse treatment for teens, education on safe sex practices, and the development of healthy coping skills.

Take the first step towards helping your adolescent by contacting Key Healthcare residential treatment center for teens today. Your proactive approach can make a significant difference in their emotional well-being, recovery, and future success.

If you would like to learn more about our highest level of care, read our ultimate guide on Residential treatment for teens.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the potential reasons or underlying factors that may contribute to my teen’s engagement in risky sexual behaviors?

Potential reasons or underlying factors that may contribute to a teen’s engagement in risky sexual behaviors can vary. It could include factors such as peer pressure, curiosity, a desire for acceptance or validation, lack of comprehensive sexual education, the influence of media or pornography, underlying emotional issues, history of trauma or abuse, or a need for control or power.

How can I approach and initiate a conversation with my teen about their risky sexual behaviors in a supportive and non-judgmental manner?

When initiating a conversation with your teen about their risky sexual behaviors, it’s essential to approach them with empathy and understanding. Create a safe and non-judgmental space for open communication. Express your concerns about their well-being and emphasize that you are there to support them.

Are there any signs or symptoms that I should look out for to determine if my teen’s risky sexual behaviors are linked to emotional or psychological issues?

Signs or symptoms that may indicate a link between your teen’s risky sexual behaviors and emotional or psychological issues include changes in mood or behavior, withdrawal from activities or relationships, excessive secrecy, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, or a history of trauma. However, it’s important to seek professional guidance for an accurate assessment.

What role does peer influence play in my teen’s engagement in risky sexual behaviors, and how can I address this influence?

Peer influence can play a significant role in a teen’s engagement in risky sexual behaviors. It’s important to address this influence by promoting healthy peer relationships, encouraging positive friendships, and fostering open communication. Educating your teen about the importance of making independent decisions based on their own values and well-being can also help mitigate negative peer influence.

Are there any resources or support groups available that can provide guidance and assistance for parents of teens involved in risky sexual behaviors?

There are resources and support groups available for parents of teens involved in risky sexual behaviors. These may include local community organizations, mental health clinics, or online support groups. Connecting with professionals or other parents who have gone through similar experiences can provide valuable guidance, information, and emotional support.

How can I ensure that my teen receives the appropriate sexual health education and information to make informed decisions regarding their sexual behaviors?

Ensuring that your teen receives comprehensive sexual health education is crucial. This may involve providing accurate information about contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), consent, healthy relationships, and the potential consequences of risky sexual behaviors. Encourage open dialogue about these topics and consider involving professionals or educators who specialize in sexual health education.

What steps can I take to help my teen understand the potential consequences and risks associated with their risky sexual behaviors?

To help your teen understand the potential consequences and risks associated with their risky sexual behaviors, provide them with factual information about STIs, unintended pregnancies, emotional consequences, and the importance of consent. Engage in open discussions about responsible sexual behavior, boundaries, and the importance of making informed decisions.

Are there any specific interventions or therapeutic approaches that can address the emotional factors contributing to my teen’s engagement in risky sexual behaviors?

Interventions or therapeutic approaches to address the emotional factors contributing to risky sexual behaviors can include individual therapy, family therapy for teen, cognitive behavioral therapy for teens, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), trauma-focused therapy, or teen group therapy. These approaches can help your teen explore and address underlying emotional issues, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and make more informed decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.

How can I support my teen in developing healthy relationships and understanding the importance of consent and communication in sexual interactions?

Supporting your teen in developing healthy relationships involves promoting open communication, respect for boundaries, and the understanding of consent. Encourage your teen to engage in healthy social interactions, develop strong self-esteem, and prioritize mutual respect and communication in their relationships. Consider providing resources or educational materials that emphasize healthy relationship dynamics.

What professional help or mental health services are available to address my teen’s risky sexual behaviors and any underlying emotional issues that may be influencing their behavior?

Seeking professional help or mental health services is crucial for addressing your teen’s risky sexual behaviors and any underlying emotional issues.

Reach out to mental health professionals, therapists, or counselors who specialize in adolescent mental health and sexual health.

They can provide a comprehensive assessment, individualized treatment plans, and ongoing support to help your teen navigate their behaviors and emotional well-being.